Phi Beta Cons

Academic Stories

One of the standard replies academics make to charges of ideological bias is to cast the evidence as mere anecdote. You can always find a few aggrieved individuals, they say, and their rancor is due more to their own drawbacks than to the politics of the profession.
Of course, the professors don’t say the same about anecdotes of racism or sexism.  And what they miss about many renditions is that the accounts are not personal.  They are simply observations of things going on around them, whose biases speak for themselves. I came across one recently in Modern Age, an article from 1998 by Jon Lauck recounting life as a history grad student at the University of Iowa in the 90s. Here’s a long passage:

One of the biggest flaps among history grad students in my years at Iowa involved the choice of a guest speaker, an exercise that quickly exposed the chasm between the Old and the New.  The faculty gave the Graduate History Society $500 to bring in someone the graduate students wanted to hear, resulting in the formation of a committee to establish criteria and narrow the choice of speakers. A few wanted to bring Michael Hogan, author of five books, including one on the Marshall Plan (important during its fiftieth anniversary, I thought), and one on the implications of the end of the cold war, editor of a book on the atomic bombing of Japan . . .  Some thought Hogan the practical choice since he was an alumnus of Iowa and would be very understanding about the skimpy allocation we were working with . . . Hogal was deemed too “provincial” and his kind of history Old, however, and the graduate students decided to invite George Chauncey, whose two books are Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 and Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past.
’Mainstream’ history, the Marshall Plan, say, is boring, old-fashioned, and a slight to all those excluded from historical fields like diplomatic history.  The partisans of the New studies place a greater emphasis on drag queen balls in New York City.  Such was the great concern at Iowa the first month of my first year, when a graduate student showed the drag queen documentary, “Paris Is Burning.” When the Iowa Board of Regents said students should be told of “unexpected materials” in the classroom–like movies about drag queen balls–campus activists quickly denounced the move as fascist, refusing to accept the policy as a matter of decency and respect.

Not an exceptional story, to be sure, and one with no outright acts of discrimination. Lauck is no longer in academia, though, and part of the reason is his experience in grad school. It set the tone, he found, for further episodes in subsequent years. The problem here isn’t the choice of subject–I think gay culture is a fully legitimate historical subject. It was the cachet thrown around it, the attribution of cutting edge, the division of Old and New (equal to smart and stupid, hip and musty), the high-handed polemics in support, the equation of topic with scholarly quality. The social mores of such occasions were entirely off-putting to anybody who didn’t share the enthusiasm. This is one reason why conservatives don’t show up on humanities faculty–not because they’ve been told to leave, but because they find the social element so partisan.

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